How Does Parental Substance Abuse Affect Children?

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As children, we look to our parents and caregivers for unconditional support from the time we are infants through adulthood. But some parents can’t provide that support because they’re dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction.

In fact, it’s estimated that 25% of children under 18 are exposed to alcohol abuse or dependence within the family confines. The exact number of children exposed to parental substance abuse is unknown, but an estimated 8.3 million children under 18 were living with at least one substance-dependent of substance-using parents between 2002 and 2007.

The effects of parental substance abuse are two-fold: children are exposed to drugs and alcohol, and their parents are unequipped to provide the basic physical, psychological and emotional care they need. Genetic and environmental reasons can make children who grow up in this kind of environment more likely to:

  • Develop anxiety or depression in adolescence.
  • Use alcohol or drugs earlier.
  • Become a part of the foster care system.
  • Get into trouble with the juvenile justice system.

Parental substance abuse can lead to lifelong problems if a child doesn’t receive the support they need early on. Once children reach adulthood, they are more likely to:

  • Seek mental health treatment for anxiety or depression.
  • Struggle with parenting their own children.
  • Have marital problems.

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The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Parental alcohol or drug abuse is considered an adverse childhood experience, or ACE. Psychologists coined the term in one of the most comprehensive studies of the effects of childhood neglect and abuse on health and well-being later in life.

Growing up in an environment filled with chronic emotional stress as a result of parental addiction negatively impacts children’s brain development from infancy. Mental illness, physical and emotional violence, and having a parent in prison are also ACEs.

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How Clinicians Can Help Families

Findings from that initial ACE study enabled health care professionals to establish guidelines for testing, interventions and referrals to treatment. However, these processes are focused on helping the person abusing drugs or alcohol–not the person who is dealing with the physical and mental side effects of living with that person.

Because children are at such a high risk of physical and emotional harm, clinicians need to know how to identify a child’s risk and connect families with the help they need.

Prior research suggests that when clinicians approach parents who screen positive for substance use about seeking treatment, most are cooperative in pursuing follow-up recommendations, such as counseling or treatment programs. Interestingly, even if parents aren’t open to treatment or total abstinence, the knowledge that their substance use has a direct impact on their children typically results in reduced substance use, which is benefits parent and child, and could help break the often multi-generational cycle of addiction.

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If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, help is available. Guardian Recovery offers professional intervention services that have successfully guided 98% of clients into treatment for alcoholism, drug addiction, mental health issues and eating disorders. For more information about how our recovery services can be of assistance to you, contact a Guardian Recovery Specialist at (888) 693-1872.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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